Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights

Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld: A Legacy of Kindness

by Dr. Saba Soomekh and Dr. Mary Pinkerson, with help from David Wu
This essay tells the story of Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld, Etta and Milton Leve, and Alan Leve—three generations of Jews who strove to create a better, more just world. It’s a family story that starts in Romania at the end of the 19th century before moving to America, where the Schonfelds established a new life in a new world. It’s a story marked by determination, courage, and love, sometimes in the most uncertain or unexpected of circumstances. It’s also a story of perseverance, vision, and community, something that can be seen in all the lives touched by the Schonfeld and Leve families. By offering students and scholars a glimpse into a past full of vibrancy, leadership, and philanthropy, we hope this essay will not only preserve the legacy of the Schonfeld and Leve families, but will also provide inspiration in the years to come to students and faculty members touched by the legacy established by Alan D. Leve and the history from where he came.

1. Life in the Old Country

Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld were born in Falticeni, Romania, in 1877 and 1873, respectively. The situation for Jews in Romania was often precarious. They were frequently subjected to anti-semitic decrees, laws, and riots depending on which prince was in control at the time, and often found themselves the target of riots and pogroms during times of war and political instability.

Falticeni is situated in the historical region of Moldavia, a principality that existed as an independent state from about 1349 to about 1550 and then mostly as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire until 1859 when it joined with neighboring Walachia to form the nation of Romania. Along the way it lost part of its territory to Austria and another portion to Russia. (Today, the eastern side of Moldavia belongs to the Republic of Moldova, the western half where Falticini is located is part of Romania, and the northern and southeastern parts of the former country are territories of Ukraine.)

In the middle ages, Moldavia was on the trade route between Northern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Some of the Jewish merchants coming from Poland-Lithuania decided to settle in the region and they were favorably received by the rulers. At other times, they were banished, as during the reign of Petru Schiopul, “Peter the Lame” (1574-1579), who saw the Jewish merchants as commercial competition for Romanian businesses and had them taxed and ultimately expelled. Only after the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), which left Moldavia in ruins, did rulers decide to invite Jews to the region to assist in its reconstruction. To attract Jewish traders and craftsmen from other territories, they promised tax exemptions, land for prayer houses, and the right to be represented on local councils. The incentives worked and Jewish merchants engaged in the exporting of animals, leather, and cereals began settling in Moldavia, as did tailors, furriers, and watchmakers, all helping to transform Romania from a feudal system into a modern economy.

Jews began settling in Falticeni after the war's end, and by 1780, when the town was officially founded, an organized Jewish community was already in existence. The following year the landowner permitted a synagogue to be built in the form of a regular house and allocated a plot for a cemetery. A majority of the Jews in Falticeni worked as craftsmen, but others made their livings as merchants. Because so many were merchants, Falteiceni hosted an annual fair for Jewish traders. Between 1803 and 1899, the Jewish population in Falticeni grew almost four-fold —rising from about 1,500 to almost 5,500—and the community established a Jewish hospital, an old age home, and two schools (for boys and girls). They also built eleven synagogues, most of which were Hasidic, as well as a talmud torah so that local Jewish children could receive a traditional religious education. At various times, many prominent rabbis and scholars lived in Falticeni, including Solomon Schechter, who went on to teach at Cambridge University and lead American Conservative Judaism.

Although the Jewish community in Falticeni blossomed in these years, Falticeni was also repeatedly swept up in wars and political unrest in the surrounding region during which its Jewish residents were subjected to violence. In 1787, when elite Ottoman fighters, known as Janissaries, clashed with the Russian Imperial army, both sides in the conflict attacked the Jewish community in Falticeni. The Russian-Turkish War of 1806-1812 brought a Russian invasion that was also accompanied by massacres of Jews, and there was a pogrom in Falticeni as well as other towns nearby during the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s. In 1829, when Falticeni came under Russian occupation, the government ruled that non-Christians were not to be regarded as citizens, reversing the promises of the previous Moldavian government.

Believing that it might result in their emancipation and political enfranchisement, Jews actively participated in the Wallachian Revolution of 1848. But while the liberal and nationalist uprising did successfully overthrow Russian rule and result in the establishment of an independent Romania in 1859, Jews were not granted equal rights as citizens. The Jewish population of the new country numbered 130,000, about three percent of the total population and mostly concentrated in urban areas, and was gradually becoming a prominent factor in the politics of the country. But discrimination was the official policy of the new Romanian state at the time of its founding, as well as under the premiership of Ion Bratianu, who took office in 1875. Bratianu reinforced and applied laws enacted by the Russian Empire, denying Jews the right to settle in rural areas and forcefully relocating those that had done so. Many Jews living in urban areas were declared to be vagrants and expelled from the country. Yet, at the same time, Jews remained active in the country’s cultural life: Romania was the cradle of Yiddish theater when the Russian-born Abraham Goldfaden started the first professional Yiddish theater company in 1876, and during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Romania remained its primary home. It also produced many of the first chalutzim (pioneers) who settled in the future State of Israel.

The Treaty of Berlin that concluded the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 stipulated that the non-Christians in Romania (including both Jews and Muslims) should receive full citizenship. But after prolonged debate and negotiations, this was reformulated to make the procedures very difficult, requiring a separate decision by Parliament in each case, and often a ten-year term before the application was given a hearing. Various laws were passed restricting virtually all careers to those with political rights which only Romanians could hold; this forced more than 40 percent of Jewish working men into unemployment. An 1898 law excluded Jews from secondary schools and universities. Only after World War I was legislation enacted to emancipate Romanian Jewry and give them full access to the rights of citizenship.

As a result of this legal discrimination, Jews began emigrating en masse from Romania after 1878; by 1888, more than 2,000 Romanian Jews had arrived in the United States, and by 1914, when World War I began, more than 75,000 Romanian Jews had immigrated in the United States. The Schonfelds became part of this exodus. They had an arranged marriage in Moldavia in 1894 when Hinda was seventeen years old and Jacob was twenty-three. Hinda was known for her beauty, and her family pushed her to marry Jacob because he came from a prominent family. She did not want to get married to a man she did not know and locked herself in the bathroom on her wedding night. Alan Leve describes his grandfather, Jacob, as a kind and patient man who was deeply spiritual, always appearing with a yarmulke on his head and a siddur (prayer book) in his hand. A few months into their marriage, Jacob got very sick and Hinda’s family wanted the marriage to be annulled. However, Hinda fell in love with Jacob and did not want to end their marriage. According to Alan, Hinda's father was a very strict man, and during those days, if a woman had her marriage annulled, she had to return to her parents’ home. Since she did not want to be under her father’s rules, and more importantly, because she did not want to leave Jacob, she refused to have the marriage annulled and steadfastly and devoutly took care of Jacob all of her life.

2. Moving to America

Shortly after their marriage, Hinda and Jacob left Falticeni and moved to Chicago to join Hinda’s older sister, Molly. Chicago was one of the largest cities outside of New York with a major Jewish population. Many Eastern European Jews immigrated to New York or other big cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and in lesser numbers, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Boston. The Schonfelds arrived in 1900, when their first daughter, Etta, was a few months old. In Chicago, Hinda also gave birth to two sons, Morris (born in 1904) and Max (born in 1906).

In 1910, the Schonfelds left Chicago and moved to Denver, Colorado, where their fourth child, Lily, was born in 1912. The first large Jewish migration to Colorado was in 1858 and 1859, when Easterners came to the Rocky Mountains to find gold, and by the time the Schonfelds arrived, the Jewish community was well established. The Schonfeld family sold merchandise such as watches and sundries to county fairs all over Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. For Jewish immigrants who came to America in the latter part of the nineteenth century, peddling—whether by foot or by horse and wagon—was often their first entree into the local economy. Purchasing wholesale goods in bigger cities like New York and Chicago, peddlers would then travel out to scattered farms or open general stores in small towns, selling everything from buttons and sewing needles to clothes, stoves, and plates. The Schonfelds saw an opportunity to repeat this pattern in their new home.

In 1914, a year after Lily’s birth, Jacob had a stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to work. Etta, their oldest daughter, who was in eighth grade at that time, had to quit school to work as a clerk in a ribbon store in order to help the family financially. Etta also enrolled in night school to study shorthand and would walk to class instead of taking public transportation to save money. By the age of fifteen, she became a full-time secretary. Etta was one of an increasing number of young women—many the daughters of working-class Americans and American-born daughters of immigrants—to work outside of the home before marrying. They worked in schools, department stores, factories, and smaller mom-and-pop shops. Many of the young women, like Etta, mastered the era’s new piece of technology, the typewriter, helping to create the modern office.

In 1916, the family moved to Columbus, New Mexico, three miles north of the border. The first Jewish immigrants came to New Mexico, as they did in Colorado, in pursuit of economic opportunities. Between their appearance in the mid-1840s through World War II, Jews in New Mexico were mainly merchants.1 In Columbus, Etta was courted by the Ravel brothers who, according to family lore, competed with each other to marry her. The brothers are infamous for owning a mercantile store where they sold guns to the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa who led a raid on the town on March 9 that year that killed ten Columbus residents and one Mexican national. Villa lost nearly 200 men. U.S. soldiers chased them back over the border, killing about 75 more. The Ravel brothers had the largest store in town, where Villa had purchased supplies in the past, and according to some historians, Sam Ravel—either by selling Villa faulty ammunition, failing to deliver munitions Villa had paid for, or refusing to return Villa's money—was responsible for the raid. But Ravel and his brothers vehemently denied any dealings with Villa for decades following the attack, even while admitting they sold weapons to other revolutionary factions, and forcefully denied that their actions had caused the raid. Regardless of the brothers' involvement, it was a blessing Etta did not get involved with them, as it would have put her and the whole family in jeopardy for being associated with the men who had the audacity to cheat Pancho Villa.

The Ravel brothers were not Etta's only suitors during the family's time in Columbus: Milton Leve, who had met Etta in Denver, courted her after she moved to Columbus as well. The Leve family was from Poland and moved to the United States in 1897 via Canada, first settling in New York and later in California. After the big 1906 San Francisco earthquake, they decided to move to Denver, where Milton finished high school and enrolled in dental school. He had a German teacher he believed was anti-Semitic, and one day after a big argument with his instructor—who told him he was speaking Yiddish and not German—he decided to quit school and enrolled in the Navy. Milton served nine months in the Navy, and was scheduled to ship out to Europe when he learned that his mother was sick and came home to attend to her. This turned out to be a blessing because his intended ship was struck by the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, known as the Spanish Flu, killing nearly everyone onboard. The pandemic actually killed more people than World War I, somewhere between twenty million and forty million people. Milton was eventually released from the Navy because the Department of Defense ran out of money and he moved back to Denver and opened a music store. Finding that Etta had moved to Columbus, he put an advertisement in the Denver Post that said, “Milton Leve is going to Columbus, New Mexico, to visit Etta Leve,” revealing his confidence in their love. Hinda did not approve of Milton, but the couple married anyway in 1922 in Denver. Milton and Etta started their married life there, with Etta giving birth to their first child, Eleanor.

3. Moving to Boyle Heights

In 1925, Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld, along with their three youngest children, moved to Boyle Heights, a neighborhood located in the Eastside region of Los Angeles County, in search of a warmer climate for Jacob’s health. Many Jews who settled in Boyle Heights came seeking cures for chronic illnesses and believed the California sunshine would help their health. Boyle Heights was marketed as an upscale neighborhood with beautiful views, parks, and a convenient location. By 1890, most of the approximately 2,000 residents were affluent Protestants along with the Chinese, Irish, and Mexican workers they employed. After World War I, Boyle Heights attracted a new wave of immigrants, including thousands of Eastern European Jews. In the 1920s, Jewish immigrants, mostly of Russian and Polish descent born during the pogroms and restrictive legislation that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, moved to Boyle Heights. Many Jews came in search of better health, a desire to own their own business, and to pursue the American dream of home ownership. A majority spoke Yiddish while many could read and write English. The Jewish population of Boyle Heights increased five-fold in the 1920s to include an estimated 6,000 Jewish households. Many of the neighborhood’s new residents were themselves Yiddish-speaking Eastern European migrants who came to Los Angeles after having spent time in other American cities. By 1940, the neighborhood was home to more than 15,000 people of Mexican descent, 35,000 people of Jewish descent, and 5,000 people of Japanese descent, with smaller numbers of Russians, Armenians, Italians, and African-Americans.2

The Jewish population was concentrated around Brooklyn and Soto, where Jewish institutions and stores dominated the Boyle Heights landscape in the 1920s and 1930s. During World War I, Jewish laborers migrated to Los Angeles from the East, bringing with them a tradition of radical politics and trade unionism. In the 1920s, Boyle Heights was home to local chapters of the Workers Circle and the hatters, carpenters, and garment workers unions. The creation of other Jewish institutions, such as the Hebrew Sheltering Home, the Talmud Torah, the Julia Ann Singer Day Nursery, and a Jewish hospital, encouraged the migration of more religious Jews to Boyle Heights. The neighborhood had the largest Orthodox synagogue west of the Mississippi River, the Breed Street Shul, and a dozen smaller houses of worship. By the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of non-Orthodox, more Americanized, second-generation Jews were attracted to and settled in the neighborhood.

The Schonfelds settled on St. Louis Street, just a block from Brooklyn Avenue in the heart of the Jewish community in Boyle Heights. Lily attended Hollenbeck Middle School, and Morris and Max both attended Theodore Roosevelt High School. Both sons were good athletes and played many sports. The Schonfelds lived in a little house with a big front porch and a walnut tree.

While the Schonfelds were in Los Angeles, the Leves were in Denver. In 1926, Milton decided to move the family to Boyle Heights. Milton became a top salesman for a musical instrument store in downtown Los Angeles called the Fitzgerald Music Company. Etta and Milton’s son Alan was born in December 1927 at the Abraham Lincoln Hospital in Boyle Heights on Soto Street. The Leves moved into a house right next door to the Schonfelds, where Alan spent a lot of time with his grandparents in their home and climbing their walnut tree. Jacob would sit in his wheelchair by the kitchen and according to Alan, he was always praying and studying Torah. He was a devout and spiritual man, and although he could speak English, he mostly spoke Yiddish, a vernacular language that combines German, Hebrew, and Slavic forms and vocabularies. While a majority of Boyle Heights’ Jewish immigrant residents could read, write, and speak English, many preferred to express themselves in Yiddish as Jacob did. Recalling the constant Yiddish conversation in the house, Alan admits, “I wish I could remember all the Yiddish that was spoken because it is such a descriptive language.”

Alan also fondly remembers Hinda’s incredible skills as a cook and baker, particularly the smell of Hinda’s freshly baked challah and Romanian desserts. Cooking and baking traditional Jewish and Romanian food was a way for Hinda to pass down her religious and ethnic traditions to her family. As anthropologists have noted, for elderly Jewish women, food preparation for the Sabbath, for Jewish holidays, and for strangers is a religious pursuit, and their religious world is concentrated within the sphere of their home, kitchen, holidays, and familial duties. Alan recounts how his grandmother would purchase a chicken and pluck off the feathers to make her savory dishes. He recalls, “There were smells in the neighborhood—markets were open. I lived in the Jewish environment.”

A central part of Alan's Jewish environment was the Breed Street Shul, formally known as Congregation Talmud Torah, located just a couple of blocks from Hinda and Jacob's home. Founded in 1904 as a traditional religious school (talmud torah) on Rose Street downtown, the Congregation relocated to Breed Street in 1913, where they began construction on a large new synagogue building that opened a decade later. With more than 400 member families, the Breed Street Shul was the largest Orthodox congregation west of Chicago, inspiring other observant Jews to settle nearby and form at least two dozen other synagogues in the neighborhood. Alan fondly recalls getting dressed in his synagogue attire and attending the Breed Street Shul with his grandparents. His grandfather sat downstairs in the men’s section and Alan sat with his grandmother in the balcony with the female congregants and children. Hinda and Jacob did not go to Shul every Shabbat and did not consider themselves Orthodox, but they kept kosher in the house, observed all the Jewish holidays, and had great reverence for the Breed Street Shul.

4. Leaving Boyle Heights

While Milton Leve sold musical instruments during his time in Boyle Heights, his brother Rey worked as a clerk at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange and later became a district manager at Metropolitan Life Insurance. Soon, Milton left the music business to join his brother and work as a life insurance salesman at Metropolitan Life Insurance. Milton was assigned to a district in West Los Angeles and he moved his family to the West Adams neighborhood in 1936, when Alan was nine years old. After two years, the family moved again to the Pico/Fairfax area where Milton bought a two-bedroom duplex and the family joined Mogen David Synagogue on Pico. In the mid-1940s, Milton left the insurance business and became business partners with his brother, owning a bike shop.

The Leve family was among many Jewish families that left Boyle Heights in the late 1930s. Those departures accelerated after the Federal Housing Authority's Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlined the neighborhood in 1939, declaring that:

"This is a 'melting pot' area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is seriously doubted whether there is a single block in the area which does not contain detrimental racial elements and there are few districts which are not hopelessly heterogeneous."

The HOLC's "red" designation signaled to local banks that issuing mortgages in the area would be "risky," making it very difficult for prospective home buyers to secure loans there, and encouraged the local, federal, and state governments to appropriate land in the area for more public purposes. Five major freeways were built in and around Boyle Heights between 1943-1960, lowering home prices even further, and prompting Jewish families in the area—particularly first-time home buyers of the American-born generation—to settle elsewhere. West Adams was a first step for many families—as it was for the Leves—along with the Fairfax district, which was home to four Jewish congregations by 1940. As these Jewish Angelenos, along with thousands of new arrivals from elsewhere in the United State, established themselves in other parts of Los Angeles, communal institutions from schools to synagogues relocated as well.

Although the Leve family moved out of Boyle Heights, they would always go visit Hinda and Jacob for holidays, especially Passover, which was always observed in the Schonfeld household with a long seder service. Mr. Leve remembers that as the Nazis ascended to power in Germany, the Schonfelds became very concerned about the friends and family they had left behind in Falticeni. When the Germans arrived in 1941, there were 4,020 Jews in Falticeni, about one-third of the total population. The Nazis set up a headquarters in the town and commandeered the synagogues for military barracks. Male Jews were concentrated in camps, and 1,000 were sent to Bessarabia for forced labor. In the spring of 1944, Falticeni was evacuated as the Soviet Army approached. Those Jews who survived the occupation and evacuation returned six months later to find their homes stripped bare. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, at least 270,000 Romanian Jews were killed or died from mistreatment during the Holocaust.

Amidst these concerning developments, Hinda Schonfeld passed away from complications following hernia surgery, when Alan was fourteen years old. In an interview with UCLA Newsroom (March 17, 2015), Alan recalls the cold and rainy day in 1941 when he left the Breed Street Shul for his grandmother’s funeral. He said he “was amazed at the sight outside the car window; rows of mourners standing shoulder to shoulder for three city blocks on each side of the street, umbrellas over their heads, to pay their last respects...It’s a memory indelibly etched in my mind. It was a revelation to me. My grandmother had no fame, no material assets of any value; but everyone gravitated to her because of her warmth and generosity of spirit. I realized then that who you are is more important than what you have.” The family hired a caretaker to watch over Jacob, eventually placing him in a rest home in Boyle Heights. He passed away two years after Hinda in 1943.

With Hinda and Jacob’s passing, the Leve family no longer had a reason to visit Boyle Heights. However, the community always played a significant part in Alan’s memories. He said, “I always cherished the fact that it was such a vibrant community at the time. We were always on the street; it was always filled with people.” Alan feels that Boyle Heights has played a large part in his life, although its influence wasn’t always at the forefront of his mind. “I have had many life experiences since then that I didn’t think about the neighborhood,” he said. What changed for Alan was when they started to revive the Breed Street Shul and he went to the ceremony in 1998 with his son-in-law, Larry Cohen, and his two grandchildren, Rachel and Adam. It was the first time in a long time that he was back in Boyle Heights. Alan considers Boyle Heights a big part of his heritage. He said, “I am proud of that period because the home of the Jewish people in Los Angeles was Boyle Heights when I was born. It was a vibrant memory for me and it has always stayed with me, but life went on.”

Through his $5 million endowment to the Leve Center, Alan not only ensured the continued vitality of the Jewish presence in academic, social, and cultural life on the UCLA campus, the university he graduated from in 1951, but he has continued to honor his grandparents’ legacy and the significance of Boyle Heights through the Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld Boyle Heights Collection. The endowment also established the Milton and Etta Leve Scholar-in-Residence Program, intended to bring academics from across the world to UCLA, foster international collaborations, and provide new perspectives on Jewish history; and the biennial Leve Award. Hinda was known for her generosity and altruism—there is no doubt she would be proud of her grandson Alan.


1 Henry J. Tobias, A History of the Jews in New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990), 3.

2 Caroline Luce, “Reexamining Los Angeles’ ‘Lower East Side’: Jewish Bakers Union Local 453 and Yiddish Food Culture in the 1920s Boyle Heights” in Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, ed. Karen Wilson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 29-30.

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